So time to place my cards on the table… I’m not technical, though I have “Technologist” in my job title, so I prefer to think of it as “Teachknowledgy” instead. Most of my days are spent living as an “imposter” to coin the phrase of clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. I mean don’t get me wrong, I can find my way round a PC or a tablet, I successfully operate with an environment steeped in technology but I still get cold sweats if I see pile of cables, fear the day I get asked fix the display on a projector and can barely identify an HDMI connector. True dat.
So why on earth am I a Learning Technologist, and more so, involved in a project which makes use of such boundary pushing consumer technology as virtual reality? In a recent white paper The Future of Learning Technology in UK Higher Education, a joint paper published by Microsoft Surface and the Association of Learning Technologies, Learning Technologists were described as being actively involved in managing, researching, supporting and enabling learning with the use of technology (Microsoft Surface 2017). Whilst I may not particularly technical I am curious and passionate about learning; how people learn; how the experience can be improved; the subtle shifts in the way people learn, consume and process knowledge and skills alongside changing cultural shifts and paradigms, and of course interwoven into this is the impact technology has on people’s access to knowledge, their ability and requirement to retain and apply this knowledge and more broadly the general competencies that are now required to operate within an ever technologically evolving world. In short, future digital literacies.
I think back to my own learning experiences whilst at University and before, during the cusp of the internet revolution during the 1990s. I was lucky enough to have lived in a household of early internet adopters in the early 1990s due to the nature of my father’s work and I remember that my first school project on Beethoven when I was 12, was both word processed and researched using the internet, a cumbersome process entailing a painfully slow early dial-up connection and the use of boolean search terms on a yet to be defined search engine. The resulting information was displayed, black text on white background without images much in the way you might access information from an encyclopaedia which had been my main source of “verified” knowledge up to this point. I stress the term “verified” carefully as I believe one of the most profound impacts on learning that the rise in the internet is the sheer volume of information now available and at speed, to a much wider audience. Whilst valid arguments regarding the documentation of historical events from single perspectives have been around for a while, the idea of critical thinking tended to operate only in the realm of academia. However, everyday consumers of internet content need to think critically about the content they are reviewing, understanding and making value judgements about its provenance. Think “Post Truth”. The need to filter, question and critically evaluate at a much earlier age is just one example of a key paradigm shift in the way people learn in the context of advancing technological environment and it is these subtleties that fascinate me about using technology for learning. To quote Microsoft Surface again, learning technology is not a simple application of computer science to education or vice versa. To me, my role as a Learning Technologist is about understanding the wider context of world, how technology is making an impact on the way we operate as human beings, to explore what this means for us in the way we think and approach problems and to harness technology to better prepare our students for a digital thinking in a digital world, assisting academic and teaching staff to incorporate approaches to enhance digital literacy into their delivery.
The use of Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Realities is just another example of the way technology can have a tangible impact on the way human beings think and approach spatial design challenges and it is more than an emerging trend adopted by organisations in and on the periphery of the built environment industry. Ultimately urban design and planning is a wicked problem which needs to pay due consideration to the competing priorities of a multitude of stakeholders, but the resulting solutions are still very subjective. Urban Designers need to be afforded methods which allows them to develop the deepest understanding of their stakeholder needs and to place themselves in their shoes. Equally, they need methods which allow them the best opportunities to convey their solutions to their stakeholders which mitigates against design concepts which are lost in translation using current methods of 2D plans, 3D models depicted in 2D media or at best 3D “fly throughs” on computer or TV screens. But as humans we are emotionally connected to our environments through sensory exploration and response and though we may logically comprehend a plan for a new city development that is presented to us on paper or on screen, we really want to know how it will feel to experience walking down that street on a beautiful summer day, or run down the street to catch a bus on a cold winter evening. What about the unplanned spaces between buildings, the voids that have no purpose – how do they make us feel about the area, do we feel safe and if we don’t, what can we do?
Now Virtual Reality in its current form, cannot come close to addressing all of these requirements for sensory stimulation however I believe it’s a step in the right direction. It offers immersion and a sense of presence (though there is academic debate on the extent to which authentic presence is felt in a synthetic environment). More importantly, for the first time it allows the designers and stakeholders to experience plans at full human scale; in itself a shift worthy of note.